Editor’s note: In April we’re running a series called “Waymakers” to highlight stories about contemporary Christians engaged in unique partnerships and and justice work. Look for a new one each Monday this month.
Growing up as the daughter of Irish immigrants in the Bronx, Tara Flynn knew she wanted to carve her own path. But she never dreamed that path would one day lead her back to the Bronx—not back to her old neighborhood, but to the Bronx River Housing Projects, one of the poorest and most dangerous areas in one of the country’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods.
Why would someone give up a full-time job with New York State and leave her childhood home to live and work in a community she’s never heard of or been to before? Because Tara finds opportunities every day to offer love and care in Jesus’ name to people from whom the world regularly turns away.
Tara always had a heart for the poor and vulnerable, which led her to get a master’s degree in social work and to various jobs with state agencies dealing with foster care and child protective services. In those jobs, she worked to help people with significant struggles to live more fruitful lives. But she also wanted to help people live more fruitful lives with the Lord as their guide.
In 2003, Tara began attending a small group Bible study that included Dimas Salaberrios, a recent seminary graduate who had grown up in a rough area of Queens. Dimas would often detail his dreams of lifting up the Bronx and share how he felt called to work with drug dealers and gangs that had sucked him in when he was a teenager.
Dimas’ story and passion for marginalized populations inspired Tara, and she found herself becoming increasingly excited about the prospect of combining her experience working with vulnerable children with her faith. She believed Jesus could change hearts and minds in ways that social workers could not. Having just experienced a painful divorce, Tara also felt deep empathy for those who were suffering and those who felt alone.
Feeling ready for a new adventure and called to up the ante in her service to others, Tara began traveling with Dimas to the Bronx River Housing Projects, where they launched a Bible study in 2005. Eventually, they hatched a plan to start a church where Dimas would preach and Tara would run the Sunday school and work with at-risk teens in the neighborhood. Infinity Church launched in 2006 at the community center of the Bronx River Housing Projects.
As the church grew and Tara became more involved in the lives of the teens who attended Infinity, she felt called to spend more time at the housing project. In 2008, she left her job to concentrate on her Bronx River ministry, asking friends, family, and churches to support her as a missionary. Their support allowed her to dedicate even more of her time to the kids in the South Bronx.
Then Tara decided she could help even more if she moved to the neighborhood. When she told her parents she was moving to Bronx River, they became angry and cried. When she went to the post office to change her address, the clerk looked at Tara, and said, “Good luck.”
Undeterred, Tara rented a 600-square-foot ground floor apartment in a run-down building next to the projects and furnished it with mattresses and futons, turning her entire living room into one big sleeping den! Soon the den was filled with kids who had been kicked out of their homes, kids who had nowhere else to go, kids who were facing abuse at home, or kids who just needed a night away. The parents always consented, knowing Tara was a trustworthy person. She had developed that trust bond by spending all her time in the community.
Because she sees her ministry as long-term and not a short fix, Tara approaches her work both spiritually and holistically. She feeds the teens, lets them hang out and watch TV, helps with homework after school, takes them to doctor appointments, and meets their needs any way she can. She acts as the case worker in her own social work program, the mom, the aunt, the missionary, the teacher.
She has partnered with Young Life to get kids out of the Bronx and into the woods for one-week camps. She took several on mission trips to Chicago and Guatemala, exposing them to other cultures and countries.
After several years of helping to shape an entire generation of kids growing up at Bronx River, Tara knew several of them could benefit from college. But she knew that the application process was daunting to many parents and that most of the kids had never considered college an option. In fact, many of them had never even left their own neighborhood. So Tara began helping with the paperwork while also taking groups of kids on “college tours,” to help them imagine themselves in that environment.
When the kids started being accepted into colleges, Tara wanted to send them off with everything they needed, so she began raising funds for new clothes and dorm supplies. As of 2021, almost 20 young adults from Bronx River have gone off to college, a number that amazes and thrills Tara, because she knows the challenges these kids had to overcome. One went to chef school, one went to seminary, others attended community college. Six are in college right now. Kymani is the latest success story. He has attended Infinity Church for a decade, he works at the church’s after school program, and is on the media team. He just received a 4-month internship with Young Life for this summer, and will start college in the Fall.
Although Tara’s work in Bronx River has focused on teens, she also cares for the community at large. She began sponsoring annual Christmas gift drives and Thanksgiving meal drives the year Infinity Church opened its doors. She is instantly recognizable to Bronx River residents, who accept her as a one of their own. People often approach her to chat or to ask her to pray for loved ones.
Tara has now been with the Bronx River Housing Projects for almost 17 years, and she is still excited about the work. A new pastor leads Infinity Church with a new vision on how to reach people in the neighborhood, and Tara says there is more hope and pride in the community and more openness to the church today.
“It has a totally different feel to it than when I first moved here,” Tara says. “Bronx River has always felt like a community, but I have seen the residents more open to the church and what the church offers. It doesn’t feel as ‘dark’ or ‘spiritually heavy’ as it once did.”
The City once tried to kick the church out of the community center, but the backlash from the community was so instant and intense that officials backed down. “People see the value of what we’re doing here,” Tara said, “and I like to believe this church and our efforts to love on its citizens have helped to turn things around at the Bronx River Housing Projects.
“Even people who have never darkened the door of our church know it has been a positive influence in the community. Everyone seems to have more hope, and they are seeing different futures for their young people.”
Tara believes she has carved her own path into a community where she fits like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. “I feel completely at peace here. This is where I was meant to be.”
Christina Ray Stanton is founder of the nonprofit Loving All Nations and an award-winning author.